Robert Rauschenberg, R.I.P.

Almost precisely eight years ago, I lugged a large canvas bag stocked with a notebook, a tape recorder and microphone up a couple of downtown escalators. My destination was a hotel lounge overlooking the statehouse, where I was able to sit down with artist Robert Rauschenberg for better than a half an hour. He was in town to accept the Wexner Prize, so the topic of conversation was broad and about his remarkable career.

One of the most affable people I’ve ever interviewed, he made me laugh a lot. And every time that I laughed, it seemed to fuel him to make me laugh more. That made editing the tape for the public radio segment I was producing about him a challenge, but it did not detract from the serious passion that he had, particularly when it came to shining a light on art’s relationship — or really art’s necessity — to politics and to science.

Beyond his obvious contributions to American art that many better informed individuals will eulogize this week, it was his philanthropic work – helping to advance humanitarian causes and education through art, as well as creating support for artists — that he expressed particular pride in during our conversation. The chance to talk to him face-to-face ranks among the most special privileges I’ve had in my career as a journalist.

He had been working on his Apogamy Pods, and explained what he was doing in a way that was profoundly (and simultaneously) scientific, spiritual, gentle and challenging. It occurs to me, thinking about him, that some of my best preparation for having a child that is so deeply interested in science has come from years of covering visual art. My son is impressed that I once spoke with one of the first and only artists in a mini-museum that was smuggled to the moon in 1969.

I was saddened to hear of Rauschenberg’s passing on Monday night. What a big life he led, what an immense personality he had, and what a legacy he has left.

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